Imagination and Serendipity

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Image by Julia Clark-Spohn

Image by Julai Clark-Spohn

Over the last few days, my co-author Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have been part of two great public events: the Washington State Imagination Conversation, held in Seattle on Oct 16; and a talk we did Tuesday night at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble in New York.

The Seattle event, held in the glass-enclosed upper lobby of our city’s gorgeous opera house, was a rich and interactive forum with five panelists and well over 200 attendees. The panelists were amazing: Yoky Matsuoka, a pioneer of neurorobotics at the University of Washington and a MacArthur fellow; Erik Lindbergh, aviator, educator, artist, and grandson of Charles Lindbergh; Harmit Malik, a cutting-edge cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Joby Shimomura, a prodigy political activist and organizer turned stained-glass artist; and Linda Hartzell, the director since 1984 of the acclaimed Seattle Children’s Theater. They made our job as moderators easy: they connected unlikely dots, they shared stories both deeply personal and inspiringly public, and they spurred attendees to jump in with their own ideas and inquiries. The attendees were leaders and practitioners of education, arts, politics, business, parenting, technology, and more. And at two different intervals, they drove the conversation, chunking into little crescents of four or five to explore one of the practices from Imagination First, and then regrouping as a whole to report back their insights and prod the panel into new conversation. It was a thrilling way to engage our community.

At the reading Tuesday night at Barnes & Noble, we also had a great turnout in what had to be the perfect bookstore for us to speak in. Scott and I learned a ton from the comments and observations of the audience. In particular, one fellow focused on “Teaching Nonzero Math,” one of the “practices” Scott and I outline in the book. He pointed out, powerfully, that this practice is at the root of almost everything we are trying to do with this book and this movement. To cultivate imagination, whether in oneself or in one’s circles, is to get away from the zero-sum, either-or dichotomies that so often imprison—in our relationships, in our classrooms, in our boardrooms, in our politics.

The morning after our reading, I wandered for a couple of hours around midtown Manhattan and found myself at the Morgan Library. Talk about serendipity. At the Morgan right now are three different small exhibits that each exemplifies the power of the imagination. First, and what led me to the Library, was an exhibit on William Blake, whose feverish etchings and illuminated watercolors made startlingly vivid every tale he told, whether it was the story of Job or what he called “The Prophecy of America.” Here was a man who reveled in revolutionary possibility.

Second, there was an even smaller exhibit of sketches and notes that Maurice Sendak made over many years as Where the Wild Things Are came to life, first in his mind and then in his hand. Having just seen the Spike Jonze film last week, I was thrilled to get this glimpse into Sendak’s process of converting stray imaginings and half-formed visions into prototypes and microexperiments that gradually became the iconic images we now all know. His scribbling journal entries, over many years, including instructions to himself to back off and not force an idea, give lie to the notion that creation happens in lightning-strikes. It happens, rather, as the result of the practice of imagination.

Last but not least—and I almost walked right past this—was an enchanting exhibit of ancient Mesopotamian seals: small cylinders of stone, tinier than a cork, into which elaborate images of gods and legends had been carved. Roll the cylinder into a small flat of moist clay and a full strip of narrative unfurls. You’d be amazed what a tiny, scratched-up looking cylinder of quartz can yield. I think this is a great physical symbol of imagination itself: our hearts and our minds are inscribed with the most finely-wrought images, which cannot be fully appreciated until we let ourselves open up and roll the tightly packed seal across a blank and waiting surface.

Many centuries of inspiration! Now, it’s back to Seattle and the search for new ways to tell this story.

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